22 June 2007

Australia, the US and torture

I thought if history taught us anything, it taught us that torture was useless in learning the truth; people tell you want you want to hear and it becomes an end it itself. Western civilisation without a commitment to the rule of law and its secular moral high ground has little to offer.

The Guardian 20 June, 2007

Bob Briton

On Monday evening last week, a documentary news program went to air on the ABC containing material of a sort that used to bring down governments or at least cause some of their ministers and senior public servants to fall on their swords. Sally Neighbour’s "Ghost Prisoners" on the ABC program Four Corners was the second part of an exposé that brought together a wealth of material and expert opinion to show conclusively that Australian authorities have co-operated and will continue to co-operate with the CIA’s "rendition" program.

"Rendition" (or "extraordinary rendition") is a sanitised term to describe how terror suspects or their alleged accomplices are kidnapped and taken to countries like Jordan, Syria and Egypt and to the CIA’s own secret prisons (or "black sites") including several in Eastern European countries for interrogation. The governments of the countries involved deny it but by now the whole world knows the suspects are tortured unmercifully in order to extract information.

Neighbour’s investigation would have been particularly startling for her Australian audience. The process was laid bare using the example of Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib. The program opened with footage of a Gulfstream executive jet of the sort that took Habib from Islamabad in Pakistan to Cairo in Egypt. The program introduced British journalist Stephen Grey, author of Ghost Plane, who showed his extensive on-screen log of these rendition flights, including the one most likely to have carried the hapless Australian to Cairo in November, 2001.

Habib was subjected to brutal treatment from the moment he was snatched off a bus by local police in Pakistan three weeks after the devastating 9/11 attacks in the US. In interviews and using home-made re-enactments he videoed with his son, Habib described his ordeal in disturbing detail. Experts, such as Professor Joe Margulies who was a lawyer for a number of Guantánamo detainees who suffered a similar fate, recognised the pattern:

"Confined to a small cell, windowless, bare metal cot, 6 by 8 foot cell approximately, one blanket, one dimly lit bulb. Unmitigated violence, beatings were routine, some of them creative, some of them just brutal, thuggery."

Prior to being packed off to Cairo, Habib was prepared for the journey. His clothes were cut off, an object inserted in his anus [prisoners are routinely given an enema prior to their long flights], he was dressed in a grey tracksuit before being chained and handcuffed, drugged and had duct tape put over his mouth.

In Cairo, his treatment at the hands of Egyptian authorities was unspeakable. Egypt is a trusted friend of the US and Israel. It is also a virtual police state in its twenty-sixth year of a state of emergency with 5,000 political prisoners held without charge and, according to Amnesty International, a total of 18,000 citizens held without any charge against them. Mohamed Zarei, of the Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners, told Neighbour that torture is automatic upon detention in his country:

"There are more than 70 types of torture that citizens are subjected to. Different types of beating — beating with sticks, with bamboo, with a hose, with their hands and legs; electrodes on the hands, on the legs, on the tongue, the genitals. They flood the cell with water. This stops the person from sleeping and he spends all night standing up."

Habib recounted his experience of most of these during his six months of hell in one of Cairo’s twelve security establishments. He also claims to have seen a man kicked to death, suffered cigarette burns, the removal of his fingernails and sexual assault using trained dogs. He was reported to have been in a very agitated state when he arrived in Guantánamo for the next stage of his nightmare.

The accounts of torture in the program were distressing. Equally disturbing, though, were the flat denials from US authorities, like current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the bald-faced lie that the US would not transport anyone to a country where they believe the person may be tortured. Incidentally, the US continues to harbour admitted anti-Cuba terrorist Posada Carriles and prevent his extradition to Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua on the baseless grounds that he could be tortured in the jurisdiction of those countries.

Former senior CIA officials are slightly more forthcoming. They do not deny that prisoners could be tortured. Michael Scheuer was the Chief Special Advisor to the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit from 1996 to 2004:

Sally Neighbour (to Michael Scheuer): What did you expect would happen to people when they were sent to Egypt?

Michael Scheuer: Didn’t care.

Sally Neighbour (to Michael Scheuer): Did you expect that people would be tortured in Egypt?

Michael Scheuer: I can say I wouldn’t be surprised. We certainly raised the issues with the White House. Certainly within the CIA it was clear that there was no way we could tell anyone honestly that someone would not be tortured if they were taken to a particular country.

Of course, former CIA officials estranged from the methods and objectives of that organisation are more candid still:

Bob Baer, Former CIA Officer and author See No Evil: If you want to get a good interrogation you send a prisoner to Jordan, and the prisons are full in Jordan of American prisoners. If you want somebody tortured to death you send them to Syria. If you never want to hear from them again, send them to Egypt. That’s pretty much the rule.

By the end of Habib’s interrogation in Egypt, he had "confessed" to a host of crimes including being intimately involved in the planning of the events of September 11. He had trained the pilots involved and even wanted to commandeer a plane himself! Most experts believe the type of "intelligence" gathered by these cruel methods is useless, but not the gnomes within the CIA. "We’re pursuing a war. We’re pursuing it very badly, and at the moment the rendition program remains the most successful US counter-terrorism program in the history of the country", Michael Scheuer again.

It turns out that Habib was only released when it seemed his case might lift the lid on the whole seedy "rendition" process when he finally got his day in court.

Perhaps the most contemptible role in all of this was played by the Australian government and its intelligence services. Habib claimed to have met an ASIO agent soon after his detention in Pakistan. The agent told him he was stripped of his Australian citizenship and that the US authorities were now in charge of his fate, which included being "rendered" to Cairo. Habib also claims an Australian was present at a session of interrogation in Cairo. All these claims have been denied.

In fact, despite documentary evidence obtained under Freedom of Information, the current and previous Attorney General, the Foreign Minister the Commissioner for the Australian Federal Police and the Secretary of the Attorney General all denied knowledge of Habib’s rendition to Egypt. There was a Kafkaesque touch to all the denials, however. Authorities, while denying knowledge of his whereabouts, would reassure Habib’s wife Mara that he was well and being well treated.

The US experts interviewed on the program were unanimous that Australia would have been fully aware of what was going on. We are part on the very close Anglophone intelligence club that includes the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and (on again and off again) New Zealand.

Jack Cloonan, Senior Special Agent, FBI’s Bin Laden Unit, 1996-02: This is a willing partner, we’re married to each other. So to think that we, the United States, would just say don’t tell them and we’ll tell them afterwards and don’t worry about it, we’ll clear it up, you know, baloney.

This was done in a co-ordinated way. Now it may not be popular in Australia and there’s probably people looking to jump in a hole some place because they don’t want to acknowledge this, but believe me, there’s an audit trail and somebody is just not telling you the truth if they are denying this.

Mamdouh Habib is now suing the Commonwealth for complicity in his wrongful arrest and failure in its duty of care to protect him as a citizen. The Commonwealth is meeting the latter claim with the argument that no such duty exists! Habib’s passport was cancelled in 2005 and has not been restored.

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